Villia-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras #5 – recordings, arrangements and research resources

June 22, 2009

My Blog has moved to www.albertcombrink.com

There are many different arrangements of the Bachianas Braisleiras in print and in recorded media. I here offer a few versions in different styles, genres and voice-types.

Bidu Sayão -The first soprano to record Villa-Lobos’s large-scale “Symphony Cantata” “Amazon”. Performed in the presence of the composer, her performances are regarded as authentic as one can claim. We also have her to thank for the very existence of the vocal version of the work. Villa-Lobos originally conceived the melodic line for a violin, and it was Mz. Sayão who suggested the Vocalise concept. She did not however sing the World Premiere. The lyricist of the Aria (Cantilena) Ruth Valadares Corrêa gave the first performance in 1938.

Barbara Hendricks – A modern recording of a beautiful soprano rendition with the original orchestration.

Galina Vishnevskaya (Original Orchestration with Mstislav Rostropovich playing the solo cello) – It might seem alarming that the dedicatee Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and performer of Russian works such as Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District” would tackle this work, and yet it is deeply moving in its own right. The famous “Slavic Wobble” is absent, and the white vibrato-less sound for which her Tosca and Aida were criticised, seems to suit the ethereal cantilena. Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote “Listening to the singing” in 1961 after hearing this performance. Villa-Lobos himself played the cello, and it says something of the power of this piece that a great solo cellist such as Rostropovich would join a “cello-choir”.

Camile van Hulsen Organ transcription – A version which exploits the sustaining qualities of the organ.

SEBA – I think this version performed by a Crossover Jazz Ensemble would be more interesting if the performance was not so compromised.

Trio Arrangement for Soprano, Piano and Cello which attempts to combine the prominent elements of the Piano Arrangement with the textured movement of the cello part, reduced to one lone cello. There are successful elements at work here, but it is almost impossible to remain consistent throughout the work as the staccato passages are passed between the instruments.

Eva Marton and the New York Harp Ensemble – Mz Marton’s unsuitability to the vocal line apart, I felt the harps either too resonantly recorded or just not dry enough to capture the guitar-like texture. A useful experiment and a surprising failure.

Elena Garancia (Reorchestrated) – A Mezzo-soprano singing the soprano line magnificently. Yet while she sings in the traditional “operatic” voice, the accompaniment has been fleshed out. Perhaps as there is a certain discomfort in the original version, given that we are not used to listening to an orchestra made up of only baritonal cellos? A lovely version, but it definitely can not be called “authentic”. Is that a problem? Let the listener decide.

Victoria de los Angeles – The doyenne of Spanish singers is for many the ideal interpreter of this work. I personally find the cellist’s overindulgent rubatos too much to handle.

Machaca Ensemble (re-orchestrated with percussion) – An interesting orchestration including Xylopohone. An experiment that perhaps is not yet complete. The use of percussion can be further explored.

Martin Ostertag and Boris Björn Bagger both teach at the University of Music Karlsruhe and made an interesting version for Guitar and Cello only with the Cello replacing the voice. A lovely arrangement perhaps, but a rather dry-eyed performance. Sheetmusic available at http://www.edition49.de

An audio clip is available on Amazon by Miles Davis protégé Wayne Shorter – as authentic and heartfelt a response to this work as one can hope to hear. Reinvented, original and beautiful.

Reinvented but much more baffling is a version by Jorge Aragao, a Samba artist who started performing in the 1970s. The carnival feel seems very far removed from the heartfelt cantilena of the “moon rising over the infinite beauty of transparent clouds”

John Williams & Nana Mouskouri – This rather baffling rendition has divided opinion for almost 40 years. Nana Mouskouri had an instantly recognisable voice ideally suited for folk music, aunique personal style which she applied to everything that she sang. She transposes the high notes down, making it a very strange listening experience. Yet it was hugely popular in its time and broadcast on BBC4.

Joan Baez – A folk singer with a voice similar to Nana Mouskouri, but a vastly more successful performance in its original orchestration. Even when it was first recorded, critics had little idea what to make of this version. It was not classical, it was not folk. And it deffinitely was not bad. No it is not “classical”. Some might say, “Thank God”.

Frida Boccara turns in a surprisingly successful version where the voice does not take centre-stage but rather melds with the cellos, at some points indistinct enough that it almost becomes one of the instruments of the orchestra.

Lance Bryant’s version is for SAXOPHONE and String Quartet – Perhaps with a world-class saxophonist this version has potential.

Bachianas goes Café del Mar: The Operatica rethink has left me undecided. New art or travesty?

And just when you think you have heard it all – I am afraid to comment on this choral version. Perhaps a successful choral version such as the “translation” of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” into a choral “Agnus Dei” still waits to happen for this work.

I include a version for Jazz Vibraphone and Harpsichord mainly for the dubious sake of completianism.

I leave the worst for last. Undoubtedly an amateur, Hayley Westenra here reveals all the virtues  and mysteries of her non-art. Breathing in the middle of phrases is the least of her flaws. An attempt at pretty singing simply falls flat. It is as meaningless a performance as one could have the misfortune to encounter. ANd Mz Westenra commits the ultimate Bachianas Crime: to bore the listener.

Useful links

A  list of recordings of works by Villa-Lobos currently in the catalogue

A list of scores and some archive recordings

Text and translation

Some published arrangements

The Aria (Cantilena) has also been arranged for:

Voice and Guitar as performed by Andrés Segovia

Voice and piano by Burle Marx

Concert Band by W. Herbert

Organ solo by Camil Van Hulse

Flute and Piano by James Galway

Viola and piano by William Primrose

Clarinet Choir by John Krance

Alto sax solo and sax quartet accompaniment by Frank Bongiorno

Solo Soprano Sax (C Instrument), 2 Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Bass Sax all published by AMP (Hal Leonard)

(http://www.mola-inc.org/Bachianas.htm)

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